The planning consultant called downtown Columbia cool, interesting, authentic and vibrant. Then his group sketched a vision for the future that included a new hotel and convention center, a new museum for the State Historical Society, a new performing arts center for the university and a Flat Branch “garden district” with fountains, cafes, an expanded park and a mix of retail, office and residential space.
That was in March 2007. That was the Sasaki plan.
The next downtown charrette planning meeting is scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. Friday in Dulany Hall at Columbia College.
You may have noticed that none of that vision has actually come to pass. The one big attempt, an ill-considered and secretive scheme to seize some private property by eminent domain as the museum site, blew up in the faces of the schemers and the proposed funding evaporated.
That less-than-inspiring bit of our recent history was in the back of my mind Monday evening as I ventured over to Columbia College to sit in on the second round of the current downtown charrette. (Well, to be perfectly honest, I had forgotten the name of the previous planner until Nina Johnson, the Missourian’s ever-resourceful librarian, dug out the articles from back then.)
A charrette, in case your grasp of urban planning terminology is as shaky as mine, is defined on the planner’s website as “an intensive planning session in which citizens, designers and others collaborate on a vision for development.”
There were about 25 of us citizens in the room Monday, along with 10 or so “designers and others.” A few I recognized. Among those were MU provost Brian Foster, hyper active downtown developer John Ott and civic activists John Clark and Linda Rootes. The head planner, John Hoal of H3 Studio, divided the attendees into a half-dozen groups and gave each two sets of sketches. Each set showed three possible visions for the development of the northeast and northwest corners of downtown.
As I wandered from group to group, eavesdropping, I heard far more enthusiasm than skepticism. Every group preferred the planners’ most ambitious option for each “node.” Every group came up with suggestions for extending or tweaking the sketches. I heard nobody saying "No."
The Missourian has reported the big ideas. Those include the streetscaping of College Avenue and Walnut and a green corridor running from Columbia College into the Orr Street arts district. Even more ambitious would be the expansion of Flat Branch Park west to Providence and construction of a convention center and hotel in the southwest corner of the Providence-Broadway intersection. They’re exciting, even visionary, ideas. But will they ever move from ink on paper to steel in the ground?
The next day I walked over to H3’s temporary headquarters on Walnut Street and chatted with Dr. Hoal. He politely challenged my impression that Sasaki has produced nothing. In fact, he said, this charrette is the logical and necessary next step in implementing the Sasaki plan.
He also cautioned against impatience. In this depressed economy, the post-Sasaki vision won’t be implemented in a year or five. He pointed out that he and his associates are talking of a 20-year time frame.
I noted the absence of any mention of eminent domain as a tool for redevelopment. He knows that’s a sensitive issue here, he said. His group prefers to avoid such forced taking whenever possible. He also said that Columbia is blessed with a number of private developers with deep local roots and an appetite for change.
I was left thinking that a comment Carrie Gartner, director of what was then the Special Business District, made three years ago still applies.
“The question isn’t when is the city going to do something,” she told a Missourian reporter then. “The question is when are different property owners and developers going to come together and agree that this is what we want the area to look like.”
When? And how?
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.